The number of damaged or leaking hazardous materials containers shipped by rail has more than doubled over the past four years, and Rail Labor is demanding to know why.
The shocking figures are highlighted in comments filed on March 24 by seven Rail Labor unions, including the TWU, in response to a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Notice of Public Meeting.
The FRA routinely grants special permission for railroads to transport damaged hazardous materials containers on mainline tracks to repair facilities. However, the number of requests from railroads has steadily increased over the last 16 years — with the number of approvals more than doubling since 2007, thereby subjecting rail workers to an unacceptable risk of exposure.
“FRA should fully investigate and address the underlying reasons for the increasing number of movement requests,” the joint statement reads. “Railroads and shippers must do more to reduce the incidence of non-conformance.”
The unions contend that employees should be notified and provided protection when they will be moving and/or working in the vicinity of the damaged containers. Currently, there are no Federal Regulations in place requiring railroads to provide train crews with safety equipment to protect them from exposure to hazardous materials.
Operating crews should also be provided with emergency escape breathing apparatus when involved in the movement of such containers. The steadily increasing number of movement approvals is compelling evidence that operating craft employees should be provided with emergency escape breathing apparatus to protect them from the potential risk of inhalation or exposure to hazardous materials.
The unions were complimentary of the FRA in their joint submission, noting that there have been no injuries or known exposures during the past 16 years. However, the risk of employee exposure will only increase if the current rate of movement approvals continues.
“Railroads and shippers have a business interest in timely review and approval of its movement requests,” the unions wrote. “As soon as the backlog impacts their bottom line, railroads and shippers will pressure FRA to accelerate the approval process. Such acceleration will undoubtedly diminish the level of detail and due diligence now afforded each request, resulting in an increased probability of unintended consequences such as fire, explosion, or chemical exposure.”
The seven rail labor unions who were a party to the joint submission are: American Train Dispatchers Association (ATDA); Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET/IBT); Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED/IBT); Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS); Transport Workers Union of America (TWU); Transportation Communications Union (TCU); and United Transportation Union (UTU).